For more than a year I have been fortunate enough to photograph my local Flathead County Sheriff’s Department S.W.A.T. Team. I photographed them training, and a few times, surprisingly, I have photographed them while on call-outs as well. However, those shots are rare because we generally don’t hear about SWAT stuff until the mission is all over.
It’s hard to put into words the level of respect I have for these guys. Each is unique, but they have similar traits, habits, and core beliefs that intertwine making them a cohesive unit.
I love capturing their work in photos, but there is one downside — I’m not authorized to publish the photos.
Simply put, the photos reveal too much: identities (faces and if they run in the paper, names), tactics, certain resources and procedures that the Team does not want disclosed. For these reasons I can’t publish these pictures. In this case, the first rule of my time with the SWAT Team is, “Don’t print/post pics of the SWAT Team.”
Regardless, the project is worthwhile on a personal level. I enjoy being around these guys because, in a number of ways they remind me of my father. Good. Noble. Not itching for a fight, but always ready and willing if need be. My father, Michael James Ahearn, was a United States Marine. He died 12 years ago, but still, I listen for his voice. And I know that if he were alive today, and knew what I was up to, he’d be proud of me for this project. My father would like these guys, and believe that I am spending my talent on a worthy cause. That alone would be enough for me, but I have gained so much more in the making of these photos, I have gained an awesome collection of friends through this, and when it is all said and done, I will walk away with a fabulously unique life experience.
The backstory to Saturday night actually began back in February of this year when one of the Team members mentioned a ride along. I have been completely obsessed with the idea ever since. On this particular Saturday night all the elements fell into alignment and I got my chance. What an experience! Days later, I am still trying to wrap my head around all I have learned.
I met the deputy at the office a little after 8 p.m. He had told me that the best time (in terms of action) to go on a ride along was a weekend night. Things started off slow enough. He was the “Rover” for that evening, meaning he was not bound to a particular region, but rather has enough experience and knowledge to assess all the calls and decide which section he is most needed. Flathead County is just over 5,200 square miles. It runs from the Canadian border down to the top of Flathead Lake, over and around all of the Hungry Horse Reservoir and up into Glacier National Park. That is a lot of ground to patrol, with a lot of time, for a whole lot to go wrong.
When the evening started there was a report of a grass fire in Lakeside, so we headed south. Ironically enough, five of the guys I know from SWAT were all on shift that night. That’s unusual and I couldn’t help thinking with a photographer along this would be the perfect set up for something to go really, really wrong. (Don’t worry — nothing too major happened).
We went south, down to Angel Point past Lakeside. We looped around to Lakeside Boulevard then up to Somers. In Somers we drove through a crowd gathered for the annual street dance. He said we’d probably be back there later that night as part of that crowd was “a brawl waiting to happen.” As we drove through town and toward the water I couldn’t help noticing the nearly full moon hanging low over Flathead Lake contrasted against the hazy pink smoke from the fire. It would have made a lovely photo and since we weren’t needed anywhere he was about to stop so I could take a scenic shot. It was not meant to be.
Just like that the first call came in, and the race began. We need to be 16 miles north of our current location. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when the lights and sirens come on and you’re suddenly listening to that big Chevy engine max out on the RPMs and then you are flying up the road, 16 miles is terrifying, exhilarating, and when you know there is a person who needs help instantly, it takes an eternity to cover the distance.
I was on edge for the ride. Not because of the speed. I trust the driver. It’s all the other people on the road making this a death-defying misadventure. We leave Somers and get to the 93, heading north. There are two lanes heading north and in the (warped) minds some people that means when they see an emergency vehicle racing away they don’t really need to stop. It’s perfectly OK if they simply get over. If they get out of the fast lane, and maybe slow down, that will be sufficient.
So NOT true.
At those speeds, too many things can go wrong. An oblivious driver can fail to notice the lights and pull into the left lane. Where then does the emergency responder go? If he’s forced off the road he is in serious danger. If the other drivers have merely slowed down he can’t just run them off the road because that’s also dangerous and there are few things these guys take more seriously than the taking of an innocent life. What choices is he left with?
Please, pull over. Please get out of the way. Use your turn signal so he knows that you have seen them and then, for the sake of all that is good and kind and just and true in the universe, stop your car. It really won’t make you that late. And who knows, the life you save, might be your own.
We raced up to the scene of a motor vehicle accident with a non-responsive victim. By the time we got there, four other deputies were on the scene as well as the ambulance and I think Highway Patrol. So, we didn’t need to stick around. But you don’t know that when you hear the call. All you hear is someone in a threatening situation and needs help right now. Go.
From 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. we were pretty much driving and taking calls non-stop. There was the car vs. deer where one of the people in the vehicle was a week away from her due date. Ambulance got called out to that one. Barking dogs. Miscreants running around neighborhoods. Brawling brothers. Domestic calls. A road rage incident. Traffic incidents. A driver who smelled of alcohol and drove his vehicle up over a series of large rocks get himself well and truly stuck. A burglar alarm triggered at a business. And to top it all off, random driving to look for and stop trouble before it really got started.
Some moments of the night were fun. Others left me feeling hyper aware of all the ways a situation might turn out badly. When I first got in the truck, I signed my ride along waver and was given my rule for the evening: “Don’t leave the truck.” I wasn’t there as a journalist on scene. I was with the Sheriff’s deputies so, that profoundly changed my role. For one thing, I was closer than I would ever be in my role as a newspaper photographer. I was certainly there a whole lot faster than I could ever arrive on my own.
It’s hard to watch a friend step out and make the approach and not know whether this seemingly innocuous traffic stop is going to get wildly out of control. One of the stops we made this guy was fishing around his back seat and grabbed something from the back and pulled it forward as my friend approached. That kind of panicked my brain. I start wondering, what is it? Is it a gun? Is he going to be shot? Again, this isn’t because I don’t trust the deputy to be smart enough and strong enough. He’s been doing this for years. I see them train all the time. I trust that the odds are actually in his favor most of the time. But bad things can still happen.
For one of the calls we arrived en masse: two deputies ahead of us and a Montana Highway Patrolman following. The four vehicles take the long rough driveway. Our lights completely off and we are following closely trying not to be sucked into any major pot holes or ruts. He told me later the time that is most dangerous for law enforcement is the arrival. They try to approach as quietly and unobtrusively as they can. We get there and the first deputy to go inside is one of my other friends. Followed quickly by the guy I am riding with. Then the third deputy and the patrolman. As I am stuck out in the truck. Not knowing what is going on and left to wait and wonder about the safety of people I care about, good friends.
This was not the easiest experience. In one night I found out my nice, sweet, idyllic little town has a dark side. Drugs. Sex. Skinheads. Violence. I don’t usually see those things. This night I was presented with a moment of truth I can no longer ignore — my nice, safe, protected existence is only possible because of these guys — the ones who put their lives on the line every day. On the one hand, it makes me sad, that the world is darker than I knew, darker than it should be. On the other hand, I am profoundly grateful.
What was most interesting to me was the philosophy talk. What makes you do this? Why do you choose this life? How do you approach your work? What means the most to you about this job?
The answer is actually the Team. The guys have a wonderful camaraderie. I’ve seen them laughing and razzing each other at training, but they carry that sense of humor over into their jobs because, even for the toughest, it can’t be all bad all the time. Everyone needs a bit of levity. Around 2 a.m. we drove down to a gas station for a quick break which consisted of fruit juice and butterfingers. Two of the Team drove over to a car lot for a few minutes to “debrief,” i.e. share a few laughs and relax for a nanosecond as they waited for the next call to come in. They didn’t have to wait for long.
Why do this? Why SWAT? I’ve asked this question of other guys on the Team and I was not surprised to hear this deputy give the same answer. “For the people and for our brothers.” Being a Sheriff’s Deputy is dangerous enough. These guys take on an added level of responsibility. Not only do they have to give more of their time to advanced training, they are on call for victims who are facing the worst situations, as well as for their brothers — their fellow deputies — who find themselves facing circumstances that have or can escalate beyond one person’s ability to control.
We had long conversations about leadership, discipline, accountability, institutional inertia, the “educational” approach, and the consequences to choice we all make. He referred to his job as being at the “leading edge of life.” The tempo was something I will not soon forget.
Normally I keep this blog as a way to share my photos and the stories that go with them. But the photos that I have to illustrate this incredible night are secondary at best. I tried to make my work about the detail shots, things that I can show without showing too much, by the end of the night I had already put my camera away because even in my life, photography is not all that there is. And though I don’t have a ton of awesome photos to share from this, I still wanted to write all this down. You see, I’ve come away from my ride along with a desire to do something. To somehow, some way, show my gratitude and respect. To say thank you to those who cannot possibly be thanked enough.
I am leaving my night with a million thoughts and emotions swirling around in my brain. I am leaving with a greater awareness of things that mar the perfection of my photographer’s heaven. But I leave reassured because there are good, kind, brave, dedicated souls who are giving their time, talent, wisdom, and even their lives, to fight the good fight. I am more aware than I have ever been. I am feeling more fortunate than ever that they have let me in to make these photos (even if I can’t publish them). And I am more grateful than ever before to the ones who watch over, and keep us all safe.